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A Developer's Perspective - Heritage Adds Value

In July 2001 I helped write ‘Principles for a Human City’ about the redevelopment of King’s Cross. One of its principles was ‘harness the value of heritage’. We recognised that King’s Cross has a powerful heritage of great historic significance and that many of these assets can and should be re-used to generate new life and activity and ultimately value.

Almost 15 years on, the application of those Principles is a significant work in progress. King’s Cross is the largest mixed-use development in single ownership to be masterplanned and developed in Central London for over 150 years. Twenty historic buildings and structures represent around 30% of its footprint and around one million square feet of its floorspace (around 15% of the total). Three listed buildings, close to the stations, have been rejuvenated. The beautiful, listed German Gymnasium is now a restaurant; the last remaining Stanley Building now provides serviced offices and meeting rooms; and the Great Northern Hotel is once again welcoming guests to its bar, restaurant and boutique rooms.

The German Gymnasium Restaurant
An external view of The German Gymnasium Restaurant, One King’s Boulevard, King’s Cross. © John Sturrock

A second grouping of buildings sits along the Regent’s Canal, within the former King’s Cross Goods Yard. The buildings provide new homes for Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and the Art Fund and House of Illustration, commercial space, restaurants and a supermarket. Further along the Canal, one of the listed gas holder guide frames has recently been re-erected and re-opened as an urban park. We have similarly restored three other gasholder frames to become the setting for 145 beautiful new homes. At the top of the buildings, private and communal roof gardens will provide magnificent views over the canal, parks, and the city beyond.

The retention and re-use of these and other historic structures provide the context for 50 new buildings at King’s Cross, all set around 20 new streets and 10 new public squares, parks and gardens. The layout, street pattern and geometries within the masterplan come from the historic buildings, which also underpin the emerging sense of place. Granary Square, in particular, is now embraced by Londoners as a major new piece of our public realm.

All this amounts to a powerful case for keeping the best from the past. And yet, the bare truth is most of these projects would not be viable in their own right, even in the high land value location that is Central London. The development costs of undertaking these projects properly are very high, even before one finds unexpected ground conditions, archaeology or asbestos. They work because they are part of a greater whole.  That is one of the important lessons from King’s Cross.

Another is the need for flexibility in planning. Very early on, we agreed with Camden Council and English Heritage (now Historic England) that given the timeframe of this major development, there was little point in submitting detailed designs for the historic buildings. They would inevitably and quickly become redundant. Instead we agreed a ‘parameters’ approach within an outline planning application, an approach since replicated by very many other development proposals. Many people at the time interpreted national planning policy as requiring full detailed designs up front. It never said that, instead stipulating the need for the right level of information to permit informed decision-making. We framed our “parameters” very carefully and accordingly, based on thorough assessment of all assets.

That approach was controversial with some at the time, but it worked partly because we received consistent excellent and expert advice from English Heritage. We have not, of course, agreed on everything, but the professional and productive working relationship that developed has been crucial to the King’s Cross model of constructive conservation that, we believe, captures the special quality of London as it has grown over the centuries.

Aerial view of Granary Square
Granary Square and all of the King’s Cross Estate north of the canal. © John Sturrock

My third lesson is that such projects will always be controversial, because people care passionately about historic buildings and places. Taking an industrial area like King’s Cross and making it a place for people has meant some necessary interventions into historic fabric. This has proved contentious, with opposition in some cases progressing to the High Court. As a result, many developers shy away from taking on such projects. Controversy, risk, delay and cost are not an attractive combination!

There is no easy answer to this, but my fourth lesson would be the importance of expert advice and high quality, objective information about historic assets. Unfortunately, too many listed building citations, conservation area statements or other designation descriptions are too ‘thin’ to be of any practical use. For example, the listed building description for the Stanley Building referred only to the outside so was of little utility in guiding the internal changes necessary for modern office re-use. All too often, what fills the void is differing personal and subjective opinions over what may or may not be important.

This puts a premium on the appointment of Conservation Architects, specialist Structural Engineers and Accessibility Consultants with the necessary expertise and experience. But even with these on board, the true costs can come out double or even more than forecast by specialist cost consultants. At King’s Cross the professional fees for heritage projects have generally been 2-3% higher than for the new build elements. The concept and scheme design stages have generally been longer due to the additional technical skills and the high levels of experience of the individuals involved. In addition, more pre-application meetings with the Local Authority and Historic England were required to develop the design.

Retaining skills and experience as we move from project and project has been vital. Contractor teams that have worked on one heritage building have then moved onto the next and the same applies for the specialist sub-contractors, such as those that carry out underpinning and brickwork and ironwork repairs. Investments in 3D modelling and BIM have helped everyone.

The good news is that we have found companies and organisations which are enthusiastic about becoming tenants at King’s Cross. Of course, we need to work carefully with them, to set out clearly the responsibilities that come with the historic territory. For example, we have generally sought to retain the internal character of buildings by not insulating the walls. Together with like-for-like window repairs and replacement, this means the thermal performance of the buildings is significantly less than for new-builds and has to be accounted for in the tenant’s Corporate Social Responsibility or sustainability narrative and their operational costs. Service charges can also be higher than for new builds, as the design life for elements such as painted timber windows is significantly less than that of contemporary facades. For listed buildings there are also typically restrictions on their fit-out.

So there are countless challenges. However, they can all be overcome by an open spirit of trust and collaboration between the various stakeholders. That is our experience at King’s Cross. Fifteen years after penning ‘Principles for a Human City’, I see a successful, distinctive place that demonstrates how good planning and development, by many teams of talented people, can conserve and enhance our cities. Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times once wrote that King’s Cross ‘is the perfect mix of grittiness and shininess, simultaneously a symbol of London’s industrial and engineering past and the creative present.’ I would not have dared write that back in 2001.

The Author

Robert Evans, Partner at Argent.

Robert Evans
Robert Evans, Partner at Argent.

View the full pdf of issue 75: London and the London Plan

Conservation Bulletin 75

Conservation Bulletin 75

Published 16 March 2016

London is growing at an unprecedented rate. This edition looks at the issues this growth throws up, their effects on the historic environment and how the planning system (and specifically the London Plan) can address them.

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